American Bankers and Black Citizens, 1950-1980s: Transforming PR 'Vulnerabilities' into 'Corporate Social Responsibility'

In 1968, Donald E. Sneed, Jr., president of the black-owned Unity Bank, told an audience of white bankers that they would “have to involve themselves in solving the social ills directly or indirectly caused by them.” Sneed called on white-operated banks to help “blacks have an opportunity to obtain a fair share of the wealth.” Meanwhile, policymakers ranging from Republican corporate-liberal George Romney to Democrat populist Wright Patman openly threatened to remove lending facilities from banks that failed to discharge their social responsibilities by making credit readily available to all Americans. Civil rights leaders and black-owned banking executives spelled out the commercial bank industry’s social responsibilities: hiring and promoting minority employees; providing generous mortgage terms for African American homebuyers; increasing credit and service accessibility for underbanked populations; both lending to and training black entrepreneurs and businessmen; and—finally—bailing out failing black-owned banks by placing substantial deposits in them, forgoing government deposits in favor of them, and infusing them with capital through a number of public-private “black capitalism” programs. To repair their public relations and establish themselves as socially responsible, bankers launched a number of highly visible, “good faith” efforts. For example, the American Banking Association (ABA) established the Bankers Committee on Urban Affairs to focus on improving inner-city economic development, housing, and employment. One ABA official melodramatically declared their work ‘the most important program mounted by the banking industry in a generation—perhaps in its history.” Similarly, banking leaders understood that making visible efforts to hire and promote minority employees—particularly considering changing federal law and societal norms—stood to cost the industry much less than higher-price-tag “corporate social responsibility” items. The proposed paper will explore tensions between “socially responsible” activities and empty symbolic gestures as critical for understanding the economic and political maneuverings of the modern American firm.